Community college is a great place to start; university is a great place to finish

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One of the loquat trees around PSC campus.

Most of us go to college to get a degree so that we can have a career that will pay for that education.  However, if your sole objective is to get your degree and get the hell out, you’re missing out on everything else the community college experience has to offer.

Maybe this sounds idealistic or even naïve, but if you go to college solely for the degree, that’s almost as bad as going to work just for the paycheck.  

Though higher education is an expensive investment in oneself (timewise and moneywise), college has been proven to enhance critical thinking, oral and writing skills, abstract reasoning, and aid in the solidification of soft skills.  It also heightened my confidence and perspective.

What’s more, when you’re doing restaurant or retail work, you’re completing repetitious tasks, but in college, you’re advancing every four months to something more challenging (or at least different).  When you’re working for a boss, all they care about is that you get the job done; in college, most professors are interested in your success, provided that you care.  

One algebra professor gave us daily pep talks about practicing math and taught us that you don’t study math, you do it—sort of like brain surgery—and that “life is better with a degree.”  He admitted that Pizza Hut, where he worked so much harder for far less money, made him want to finish college.  He was interested in our minds, and, unlike a boss, wasn’t interested in keeping us there but wanted us to leave his class forever, and, if we must, “hate math again.”

I took him up on the latter, especially after I took Elementary Statistics, which was anything but elementary.

~

In college, you learn the answers to questions you didn’t know you had.  For example, this same math professor finally shed light on why we have to learn this “nonsense” (meaning algebra)—that it was to sharpen our attention to detail.  “Sometimes, we’re one keystroke from ruining somebody’s life,” he said, and so I could work on this nonsense with a newfound sense of purpose.

College gives you time to think, not just act, and will connect you to people you wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise.  

So, you watch Shark Tank and see the hustlers who never went to college (but who worked 24/7) and articles about people like Bill Gates being a college dropout, but a degree isn’t just a window of opportunity—it’s a door to experiences that are unique to the college life.  

The diversity of a community college makes everyone feel like it’s never too late to get an education, reinvent yourself, or launch a new career, so no matter your age or background, get involved in something outside the classroom. 

I did the newspaper and the literary arts journal.

Seek out internship (and work-study) opportunities as well, which you’re more likely to get as a college student, as you’re perceived as a serious individual.  Internships are the answer to that old dilemma about needing experience that no one will hire you without.

If you have the chance, take a few classes just because they interest you.  (Many people figure out what they want to do by getting a general studies degree.)  

College is a time of chrysalis:  I enrolled as a Health Information Technology major, so sure I wanted to be a medical biller and coder (to appease the introvert in me), and ended up graduating with a general studies degree in addition to that, because that was the degree I wanted to build on.

So, whether your passion is in STEM or the arts (STEAM is dumb because it leaves out writing), there is something for everyone at a liberal arts college.  

~

Now, I’m at university, studying Creative Writing.  This time, I know what I want to do.

I have experienced college life differently—as a thirtysomething with a family instead of a twentysomething living at home (or on campus).  I work two jobs, and so I don’t have time to hang out at the coffee shop (F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is a fantasy) or participate in clubs; when my friends and I get together, it is planned and deliberate, as we have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities.     

So, I will never know that twentysomething kind of college experience, but I feel like I am getting to know something better.  When I come home after a long day at school and then work at the Lab (where I concoct formulas containing commas and hypotheses based on Merriam-Webster), and the sky is just turning twilight, and the breeze through the window invigorates me, I pull up to my humble home, where, through the frosted oval glass in my front door, I see a little girl jumping, so excited to see me.  Behind that door, there is a husband who has missed me, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.  

Though I have a couple more years to go, I have lots to look forward to—an internship, a creative nonfiction writing class, and yes, even a grammar class, because I am just that nerdy.

The first two parts were originally published as “First Times and Second Chances” (with minor edits due to hindsight) in the September 2017 issue of The Corsair, Pensacola State College’s student newspaper.

Humor column: What I learned at a student poetry reading

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Remnants of a Poetry Walk on campus.

Being a Health Information Technology student, I seem an unlikely poet. I’m not all broody in a not-so-little-black dress, hanging out in non-corporate coffee shops, and my lipstick more resembles the color of blood than death.

My writing took off when I ended up placing in a college writing contest, with a piece on chimerism (when one person has two sets of DNA). That led me to taking Jamey Jones’ poetry class.

I have found that people who are going to school for healthcare tend to just want to get their degree and get the hell out, while people who are going for an arts degree tend to immerse themselves in the college experience. I started out the first and became the latter.

When I signed up for poetry, I was expecting a bunch of hipsters, but the students ranged from a red-hatted redneck who liked to talk about guns, liberals and communism, to a girl who told me I shouldn’t give evil corporations credit in my poem.

I’d never thought about doing a poetry reading until Poetry Night, when I performed “Hanging from the Family Tree”—a narrative about my family, who I like to say is the gift that keeps on giving (and, in their case, regifting).

So I was all poetry-esque in my white snood (a retro-style knit hat held in place with bobby pins), trying to keep cool so I wouldn’t break out in hives; I’d worn thigh high stockings (which were starting to roll down, so I had to take them off discreetly lest I be like Romy in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, where Lisa Kudrow tells her classmates that she lost her top).

During those minutes leading up to my turn, I was thinking I should’ve had a “sodaburb” (my pet name for bourbon, tempered with Stevia Coca-Cola), but I was stepping outside my comfort zone, barelegged and sober.

One of the guys in my poetry class had suggested we open with a joke; I’m no stand-up comic, but I’d overhead a good one while work-studying in the English Department (as I am a shameless eavesdropper): “What does the Secret Service say when they see a bullet coming toward the President?” “Donald! Duck!”

That cracked the ice, and the more I shared about my family, the more comfortable I became. I’m fairly certain I saw my ENC1102 professor wiping tears of laughter, and I was like, “I’d rather make them happy cry than sad cry any day.”

So I told the world (okay, about 50 people) about my mom who left her bras hanging on floor lamps, and confessed the sins of my father who used the dogs to pre-rinse the dishes. I flash-roasted my grandmother, who thought Obama was a Muslim because he had purple lips and her common-law husband (my grandfather, as far as I know) who helped dig up their dead dogs and put them in storage because they didn’t want to leave their candy-assed carcasses behind.

After that night, I felt more comfortable sharing my work; I’d always believed in it, but I learned also to believe in myself. I wasn’t just the message, but the messenger. I hadn’t gotten shot (and I’d done it without a shot).

I wasn’t being filmed (as the camera adds 50 pounds), so I didn’t have to worry about being tagged by a Facebook frenemy.

An encore performance was requested in the English Department the next day, and I felt, for the first time, I could shine without having to sing or act.

Performing among other poets that night in the library rotunda, I realized that poetry was a communal activity—almost spiritual in nature—bringing people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs together.

That night, I overcame my fear of public speaking, because I knew even if I was nervous before future readings, I would read anyway.

I learned about medical technology through my major, but through poetry, I learned about myself.

Originally published as “Majoring in my Minor: Poetry Night Stage Fright” in the September 2017 issue of The Corsair, Pensacola State College’s student newspaper; second place winner in the humor category at the FCSPA State Publications.

Humor column: Where are your campus’s cleanest bathrooms?

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When I see lines of people waiting to get into Best Buy on Black Friday, I always wonder if they’re by themselves, and if so, how do they go to the bathroom?  Do they wear adult diapers or do they fast? Do they call for backup?

Bathrooms are awesome. 

Growing up, if my family and I were on the road, we always stopped at McDonald’s to do our business (if not do business) because the bathrooms were usually clean.  (We would probably need a permission slip at Starbucks now, though maybe a tall latte would buy us a few minutes of peeing privileges.)

Whenever I get to wherever I’m going, I always have to go, which is rather annoying.  That’s what happens when you drink a lot of water—just like you try to eat healthy and get e-coli from the lettuce, but no ramifications from the greasy burger. 

Which is why I’m happy that the Writing Lab is now in Building 4. 

Going to the bathroom in Building 1 (if you’re unlucky enough to be at the Math Lab on Sunday) is like going into one of those gas station bathrooms where you have to use a key attached to a jacked-up hubcap.

That said, there are other campus bathrooms that could use a little attention to detail.

If you’re using the tutoring lab in Building 6, you want to be careful and not shut the door too hard in the handicapped stall of the ladies’ room because the sanitary napkin receptacle will fall off and give you a jolt.  You also want to wash your hands very fast, as the water stays on for about two seconds (and that’s not the two-second rule you want to follow). 

There are certain things all bathrooms should have, like lots of TP.  I haven’t sat on a bare toilet seat in a public place since, well, since I was a little girl and Grandma told me not to. You know those passive-aggressive little signs like “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie?” Well, if the seat is dry, there might be dried pee you can’t see. 

No thanks.  

I need at least six sheets of separation.

I get really pissed (pardon the pun) when you can’t get the toilet paper out, and it just comes off in squares—the amount Sheryl Crow says you should use to save the environment. 

And then you have those people who like to leave their calling card; I always skip that stall.

Honestly, a stall should have a shelf (or a hook somewhere) for you to hang your purse and any other belongings, so you don’t have to put them on the floor; they should also have doors that you can push, not pull, to get in. 

Building 4 has windowsills in their handicapped stalls (can you tell I love handicapped stalls?) to set your stuff.  Hopefully, a real handicapped person won’t be giving you the stinkeye when you get out.

Building 4 also has hand dryers, but no paper towel dispenser in the handicapped stall.  

At least you can push the door open with your foot.  Pull dirty, push clean. That’s how all main bathroom doors should be. 

The library’s bathrooms are some of the best on campus.  The gym (when it’s actually open) works in a pinch, though when you walk in, the people there can tell you aren’t working out, and you feel like a fattie. 

Sometimes, in Building 14, you come across the Post-Its from the Active Minds group (like “You are awesomesauce!”) stuck to the bathroom mirror like mini pep talks.  This makes the bathroom more interesting.

Powerful flushers, hand-drying choices, faucets that aren’t on a timer, and hooks galore are the hallmarks of a great bathroom anywhere.  

During those times that you have just fifteen minutes between classes, it’s nice to have a place to park and unload where you don’t feel like you’ve just left Wal-Mart at three in the morning.

That’s the rundown for the women’s bathrooms. As for the men’s, I really couldn’t say.  We haven’t become that gender-fluid yet.

Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of The Corsair, Pensacola State College’s student newspaper; first place winner in the humor category at the FCSPA State Publications.

Room at the Top

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This past week before the fall semester began, I gazed out the window of my office, watching the groundskeepers cut down the bahia grass, sprucing up for the incoming freshmen. The campus, as if it had been in hibernation for the summer, awakened with the earthy tang of fresh-cut grass. Pine straw spread around the trees are like sun-browned nests in a field of green. Moms accompanied their high school grads, the younger siblings tagging along, the air full of humidity and expectation.

The scene made me think of the movie, Liberal Arts, set in an unnamed community college in Ohio. The main character is everyman Jesse Fisher—a thirty-something college admissions counselor who returns to his alma mater to speak at an old professor’s retirement celebration.

My favorite conversation was in the dining hall, when Jesse is sitting across from a moody, brilliant kid he’s unofficially mentoring—a kid who asks him why he liked his time at this college so much, when he just wishes it would all be over, to which Jesse replies, “It’s the only time you get to do this, you know? You get to sit around and read books all day, have really great conversations about ideas…You could go up to everyone here and say, ‘I’m a poet,’ and no one will punch you in the face.”

*

When I got promoted to a higher position in the office I worked in, I had the opportunity to create a flier advertising an essay writing workshop, for which I was able to implement my creative talents (i.e. my wordsmithery and penchant for puns). I never thought I’d be interested in graphic design (as I’ve always hated my computer classes), save for the books I create on Shutterfly, but I enjoyed this project.

Every semester, I am learning more about what I enjoy doing, and could enjoy doing for a vocation.

*

My college’s motto is “Go here. Get there,” but it’s feeling more like “Go here. Stay here”—at least until I can find my niche in the medical field, hopefully, writing newsletters or press releases or something along those lines (pardon the pun).

Even though I will be taking all my classes online, college will be my home away from home, as all four of my jobs will be on campus.

Four years ago, while trying not to nod off in Health Care Law class, listening to a monotone professor read off PowerPoints from an overhead projector, I never envisioned I would be holding two supervisory positions, much less feel capable of doing so.

Despite this, and taking three classes (maybe two), I am undaunted, for, as my dad would say, “the wind is at my back.” I will not have to struggle through any more math classes this last semester before I graduate with my A.A. and my A.S.

The best math professor I ever had said something like “Just love it enough to get through it and then you can go back to hating it.”

I don’t even hate it now; I just hated doing it.

That’s progress.

*

A good friend told me it isn’t the happiness that makes you happy, but the pursuit of it. I pursued security through education, but the process made me happy, for it connected me to people who will become lifelong friends and helped me become my best.

As I’ve learned more, I’ve found myself teaching my daughter things I might not have otherwise thought about—like how the Big Bang was more like the Big Whisper, that Big Toe’s real name is Hallux, and that zero is really the first number. (She will also know how to spell Pi before Pie—that whole i before e thing, you know.)

So even though I know it’s going to be a busy semester, I look forward to all my classes—learning another language (which I like to say is like getting a brand-new set of colors you didn’t know existed), the intricate workings of the human mind (what writer wouldn’t love that?), and humanities in the arts (I predict a chapbook of ekphrastic poetry coming).

Furthermore, I will be writing, editing, tutoring, mentoring, creating, training, collaborating, and doing the kind of office work that frees my mind to brainstorm about the next “Great American Short Story.”

Maybe one day that story will be my own.

I’ll Take Two of Everything

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I hadn’t planned on getting two degrees when I decided to go to community college for my Health Information Technology degree, but with the Allied Health classes being hard to get into, to make up for what I thought at the time was wasted time (time spent learning something worthwhile is never wasted), I started taking writing and literature classes so I would still qualify as a full-time student and be eligible for all the scholarships I had already applied for.

I hate to say that such classes boost my G.P.A., and it’s not that they’re easy, they’re just fun for me.  They require work, sometimes a lot of work, but it’s fun work.  I try not to inwardly roll my eyes when people talk about their 3.9999999 G.P.A.s when they majored in English or History, because I might have much closer to that if I hadn’t had to take Pathophysiology and harder math classes (okay, hard for me).

But maybe I’m just whining.

So would I go back and change my major if I could?  No, because I need job security, and the healthcare field is where it’s at, but the journey has taken a lot longer than I thought it would, and a lot longer than it should have.  I won’t say that I’m a professional college student (a la Diane Chambers), but rather, a lifelong learner.  (I will graduate no later than spring of next year, one healthcare class, of course, being the hold-up).

Life is funny in ways.  It was because I could only get into one class in my major one semester that I ended up taking Creative Writing.

It was because I was one credit hour short of being a full-time student (the medical internships/practicums being only two credit hours) that I ended up in the one-credit hour College Publications course, which turned out to be the The Corsair student newspaper class.

And taking those classes led me to taking other classes, some of which led to scholarship awards, which enabled me to take even more classes, so I was building toward an A.A. before I realized I wanted one.

So circumstance kept pulling me in a direction that I knew wasn’t the most profitable, but led to the richest experiences. I didn’t become something else, I became more me. It was a creating as much as it was an uncovering.  I could write, but I needed focus and polish, and my college experience has given that tremendous gift to me.

I am incredibly blessed.

*

When I took two maths this last semester, it made me realize that I had no desire to build onto my A.S., but an A.A. Life was too short to spend in the math lab (clocked in 80 hours last semester, btw).  I will never be a scientist or a mathematician, but simply, a writer.  Creative writing won’t pay the bills (at least not anytime soon), but technical writing will (or working for myself as a writing tutor).

Sure, women in STEM is a Thing now–it’s all about breaking glass ceilings, but I don’t care about breaking class ceilings, only my own records. That’s what makes me happy.  That’s what some women who broke glass ceilings fought for–for women to have a choice in what they wanted to do with their lives, and writing is what I want to do with mine.

*

This semester, I am preparing to be the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper (promoted from copy editor), as well as a student editor of the college’s annual literary journal, Hurricane Review (which I did last year).  I’ve been prepping stories and materials for the fall paper, as well coming up with posts for the Review’s Facebook page and designing the website (https://pschurricanereview.wordpress.com/).  It’s still in its infancy stages, but I’m hoping to learn some graphic design skills in the meantime.

I was reticent about becoming the EIC, but a part of me wanted to give back what I knew I could bring to it.  I really am Sarah Eagle-Eye when it comes to proofreading other people’s work, and, to a certain degree, my own.

What a way to end my community college journey, doing what I love.

Letter from the Editor: Five Tips for Writing Feature Stories

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We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
–Ernest Hemingway

So I am officially the Editor-in-Chief for the college newspaper in the fall, which will be my last semester at PSC.  I will graduate with an A.S., and, because I want to go farther, an A.A. (as I am so done with math).

If there’s one thing that the class from hell (i.e., Statistics) forced me to do, it was learn superior organization, which will come in handy when overseeing each issue.

Being a confirmed introvert, the idea of being a leader of anything is intimidating, but I tell myself, “I can do this.  They’re just people.”

I am very excited about this opportunity.  I wasn’t going to go for it, but let’s just say my adviser made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

*

Since my post about tips for writing college feature stories (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/) has, by a landslide, been my most popular post, I thought I’d share a few other things that have helped me not just become better but more prolific:

  • Be aware—not only of what is going on around you but also the people around you—pay attention to quirks, distinctive tattoos, and even cars with a bunch of crazy bumper stickers.  For example, on the first day of my ENC1102 class, my professor asked everyone to write something true and something untrue about themselves; the rest of the class was supposed to guess which was true and which was false.  Remember the true things that are interesting, and reach out to those students.
  • If you’re in online classes, and there is a “Get To Know You” discussion forum, read all the bios, but, as Troy Moon (a former columnist for The Pensacola News Journal) said, “Everyone has a story, but not all of them are interesting.”  
  • Craft your interview questions in such a way that you won’t get a yes or no answer, and do not use direct quotes like, “It was great.”  That’s so boring and generic, it’s paraphrasable.  Ask great questions, get good quotes.  
  • An easy way to gather quotes (speaking from an introvert’s point-of-view) is to cover events where people are speaking.  This way, you don’t even have to ask questions.  When I covered Carl Hiaasen, columnist for The Miami-Herald, I recorded his entire talk on my phone and got excellent (and accurate) quotes.  
  • Read other college newspapers in-depth, because all I’m doing is telling you how it’s done—they’re showing you.

My ultimate goal for our publication is to get more student names and faces in every issue, because, as Diane Varsi (as Allison MacKenzie) said in the 1957 movie, Peyton Place: “It was nice to come back to a place where the names in the newspaper meant something to you.”

That embodies the very idea of “community,” and The Corsair is a community college newspaper.

Updated 12/27/2019

Collegiate Blue is the Warmest Colour

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This was my second year in community college.  I’ve learned as much about myself as I did about MLA formatting, medical coding, and how to write captions and headlines.  Life often works in mysterious ways, for I went back to school to specifically learn how to become a medical biller and coder, only to find that I don’t anymore.  The semester I couldn’t get into any classes in my major but one, I took a creative writing elective so I would still qualify as a part-time student.  That semester, I won a couple of writing awards, and began to wonder if I could bridge my career path with my passion.  When a friend of mine got a job at a hospital writing press releases and health writing campaigns, I knew it could be done.

This past semester, I interned at a hospital and that is when I discovered that coding wasn’t for me, and not because I did poorly (I made a 90% in Beginning Coding).  I just had to take something I wanted to know I didn’t want it anymore.  That said, I still have two more coding classes to go, which I consider to be “paying my dues”, for everyone has to take a class or two they don’t particularly like.

My dream is still working in a cold hospital rather than a hot kitchen, so my question to myself was, “Where do I go from here when I am two-thirds deep into my degree?”  I don’t want to be a professional college student, I want a career while I take one class every semester while building my career until I get my Masters in English and Communications, for it will be my medical degree that will pay for the other.

When I confided in my instructor about my feelings and she told me there were a multitude of jobs I could do with an HIT degree—that I wasn’t limited to coding—I felt like I’d released a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.  Because the one hospital I hoped to be able to work for someday had fired all their coders and contracted them out remotely, I wanted to do something else in the healthcare field; I still wanted to work in administration, because I cannot stand the sight of blood (not even my own).  How glad I am that I chose to get a well-rounded degree I could build on to rather than a college diploma, where I would be stuck doing one thing.  The only thing I’ve ever known I wanted to be is a writer, and I’m still discovering, at the age of an old millennial, what I want to be as I continue to grow (being grown up already).  I remember someone told me once, “It’s never too late to redefine yourself.”  He was right.

When I got a scholarship for my articles written for the student newspaper, I realized I’ve made a fair amount of money from my writing this year, whether through scholarships or submissions.  I say I went back to school to find myself, only to lose myself in it, so that I could find my new self.  I don’t know exactly what I want to do with this degree, but I know what I don’t want to do, and I know where to look for the career I want.  My ENC1102 professor told me that’s what makes a person educated—not that they know the answer to everything, but they know where to find the answer.

There’s a line from an old movie about married women being like a solved crossword puzzle, but that isn’t true; I’m still solving my own clues, because we’re human beings, subject to change—yesterday, today, and forever.  And yet, perhaps I haven’t changed at all—I’m simply discovering that I am more than what I thought I was.